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Efforts To Save Salton Sea Are
Destined For Failure

By Jim Gogek
The San Diego Union Tribune, December 18, 1998

The Salton Sea isn't a dead sea. It's worse. It's an undead sea, a Frankenstein created by the blundering of man, an environmental disaster of nightmarish proportion for which there is no solution.

It's not natural. It shouldn't exist. And Congress and environmentalists should stop clamoring to save it. It's futile.

Mother Nature designated that space for a desolate salt flat. But a developer named Charles Rockwood sabotaged Mother Nature. During his early efforts to create a breadbasket in the desert, Rockwood cut an illegal channel south of the border to help bring more water to farmers in the Imperial Valley.

Levees on his badly engineered canal were overwhelmed by floodwaters in 1905, and for almost two years the Colorado River flowed into the barren Salton Sink, 285 feet below sea level. By the time the raging channel was dammed, a vast sea had been born.

Early in its existence, the Salton Sea was a beautiful place, its clear waters fed by the Colorado River attracted bathers, fishing, skiing, resorts and marinas to its shores. But once the river was dammed, only polluted agricultural runoff filled the sea. Rapid evaporation caused the waters to become highly saline. Today, dead fish cover shorelines where fetid water the consistency of motor oil laps. And the Salton Sea has become a deathtrap for migratory birds.

A few months ago, I leapt onto the Save-the-Salton-Sea bandwagon when I wrote that a pristine sea "could become a wonderful recreational amenity in the middle of the desert" if we'd only spend $328 million in the name of the late Congressman Sonny Bono to clean it up.

I should have looked before I leaped. It's an impossibility, I've since learned. The $20 million already spent to study the Salton Sea clean-up is enough money wasted.

Republicans in search of environmental credentials embraced the Salton Sea clean-up earlier this year. It had always been an interest to Bono, who died on a Lake Tahoe ski slope Jan. 5. Shortly after Bono's death, House Speaker Newt Gingrich stood at the banks of the sea and proclaimed that Republicans would save it in Bono's name.

Gingrich, along with that noted environmentalist, Congressman Duncan Hunter, put forward the legislation to spend $328 million. But the bill was short on specifics. It proposed a few million to study the problem and the rest on whatever solution the studies might devise.

In describing how the Salton Sea would be cleaned up, Hunter echoed Bono's words: "Let's just do it!"

But we can't. With apologies to Mary Bono, I can't believe Sonny Bono would want as his legacy the complete waste of hundreds of millions of tax dollars. At least the Senate had the sense to chop the Salton Sea bill down to nearly nothing, just a few million for new studies.

The reason it's fruitless is elemental. There's no drain for the Salton Sea. It's all inflow, no outflow, and the inflow is a polluted trickle. Since the sea is located in one of the hottest places on the continent, the pace of evaporation is torrid, causing its waters to become ever more salty.

There's talk of diverting fresh water from the Colorado River to replenish the sea, and then somehow pumping out the salty water or diverting the overflow. That's crazy. Every drop of the Colorado River is spoken for by agriculture and urban water agencies. Will San Diego, Los Angeles, Arizona or the Imperial Valley simply give up millions of acre-feet of water to flush out the Salton Sea? Not without depopulating the cities or allowing valuable farmland to return to desert.

Some say we should just drain the sea. Imagine, however, a dried-up flat 35 miles long contaminated by the pesticides, fertilizers, selenium and other toxins that have been filling the sea for decades. The first Santa Ana winds could blow up a toxic dust storm toward San Diego and other coastal cities with Biblical consequences.

Even if you could somehow drain the highly salty, polluted water of the Salton Sea, where would you dump it? Into the Gulf of California? Would you pump it there (at a mammoth cost) or just let the sea overflow and inundate the Imperial Valley? And what would be the environmental impact of pumping a sea full of polluted water into the ecological marine reserve of the northern gulf?

Then there's the idea to dam off a portion of the sea near the mouth of one of the bigger inflows of water, creating a less salty portion that might support fish and birds. But the rest of the sea would simply die off more quickly. This would also require spending a huge sum to build dikes. The cost is unknown, and the water quality in the "saved" portion would still be none too good.

Frankly, these are all ridiculous ideas. There's no cure for the Salton Sea, short of ringing it with billions of dollars worth of desalination plants.

The best idea is to let the Salton Sea die. If we're going to spend money building habitats for birds and other wildlife, do it on the nearby Colorado River. After all, before the Salton Sea was created by man a century ago, migratory water fowl never used it as a stopover. Once it's truly dead, birds will find another place to land.

We should reduce and clean up the inflow through conservation and recycling of agricultural runoff, and sewage treatment on the New and Alamo rivers. The sea will slowly begin to dry up, and one day it will return to salt flat that nature intended.

Perhaps before then, someone will invent time travel. Then maybe we could go back and undo Charles Rockwood's devilish mistake.